Picture it, Chatham, ON, in the 1960’s. Greek immigrant Sam Panopoulos has two concerns which are soon to find a common solution. His first problem is that he’s still settling in and trying acclimate himself to life in Canada and trying to become more Canadian. His second problem is the food. Even in restaurants, the fare is painfully plain. One day, at Sam’s own Satellite Restaurant, he decides to do something a little different. He assembles a pizza, itself still considered “foreign” and “ethnic” in those parts, and he takes a page from the nearby Chinese restaurant, sprinkling the pizza with chunks of canned pineapple. My name’s…
As Mike Meyers in the guise of his mother-in-law Linda Richman might say, a pineapple is neither a pine nor an apple, discuss. It’s actually a berry, or rather, a group of berries that have fused together. The technical term for this is a “multiple,” collective or aggregate fruit, a heading that includes strawberries, blackberries, and sweet gums — that the tree in some parts of the US that grows spike balls to pierce your feet, like a prehistoric weaponized Koosh ball, one of which I have next to my driveway and whose identity I learned mere seconds before writing this. The scientific name of a pineapple is Ananas comosus, deriving from the indigenous Brazilian Tupi words “nanas” for pine and “comosus” meaning tufted. The English-speaking world calls them pineapples, because of the resemblance they bear to closed pinecones, especially partially-formed young green pinecones. Nearly the whole rest of the world’s languages, from Arabic to Yiddish, call them ananas or something similar, with the notable exception of Spanish, in which they are called pina, giving us the name of the pineapple-coconut cocktail pina colada. In Hawaiian, the imported pineapple — that’s right, it’s not even from there — is “hala kahiki.” Hala is a type of fruit known to the island, which looks something like jackfruit or durian, and “kahiki” means foreign.
Let’s wreck another misconception — pineapples don’t grow on palm trees. So erase that image from your mind and picture a single pineapple on top of a pointy shrub. If you know what a bromeliad is, that will make it easier to picture, because the pineapple is actually a bromeliad. The plant consists of a central stem surrounded by a whorl of tapered leaves that can grow up to about 5ft/1.5m long. The pineapple fruit grows from dozens of individual flowers that have fused into a single fruit, which is capped with a “crown” of short leaves. Pineapple plants in the wild can live up to 50 years, but in all that time, they may only produce 20 fruits, because it takes 2-3 years for the plant to produce its one and only fruit. Something to think about when you’re considering if the price at the grocery store is “cheap enough.”
People who know their bananas will not be surprised that ananas are not grown from seeds. Cloning is by far the most popular method to grow pineapples commercially. You can clone a pineapple by replanting any of four different parts of the plant: the crowns, slips, suckers, and shoots. Slips are the leaves attached below the fruit and suckers and shoots both originate from near the bottom of the stem. We’ll circle back to crown propagation later. Common commercial varieties of pineapples are “self-incompatible,” meaning that the plants’ pollen cannot fertilize other plants of the same variety. So unless different varieties are grown next to one another and flower simultaneously, the plant will produce a seedless fruit that develops without fertilization. Pollination is required for seed formation, but commercial growers *don’t want that, because the presence of seeds has a deleterious effect on the quality of the fruit. Possible pineapple include honey bees, pineapple bees, and hummingbirds. In fact, Hawaiʻi has banned the import of hummingbirds for this reason.
Pineapples can be tricked into flowering using smoke! This was first discovered on the Azores Islands using smoke. Later research showed the component in smoke responsible for the flowering to be ethylene. Now, forced flowering of pineapples is standard practice on Hawaiʻi because it allows the fruits to be produced throughout the year.
Bonus fact: The world’s largest pineapple ever recorded was in 2011, grown by Christine McCallum from Bakewell, Australia. It weighed a whopping 18lb/8.3kg! Try getting that at Aldi for $1.19. Speaking of world records, we’re just two weeks away from episode 150 and still no word from Guinness World Records people about my application for a record for more guest segments on a single podcast episode. The goal is 50 guest facts and there’s still space on the roster, so let your other favorite podcasts know that they should get in touch, because I’ll also be promoting the other shows throughout that week.
If you knew one cool fact about pineapples before you fired up your podcast app, it was probably that pineapples contain bromelain,a protein-digesting enzyme. People like to describe pineapple as the only food that eats you back. Most of those in the know think of bromelain for its meat-tenderizing qualities and boy howdy does it do that. Foodie friends should check out the Brazillian YTer Guga Foods. He does lots of interesting well-constructed experiments on steak, from sous vide and air-frying to dry-aging steak in peanut butter –ya man eats a *lot of steak– and that includes the meat-tenderizing power of pineapple. Does it really work; can you tell the difference; does the resulting steak taste like pineapple. I’ll let him tell you in his own words (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5X8KBX-LtAs), but you should hit the link in the show notes to check out his channel.
Bromelain has also been used for centuries in traditional medicine in Central and South America and is even used by modern medicine. The FDA classifies it as GRAS, generally recognized as safe and it’s handy stuff. Bromelain can be used topically to remove dead skin from burns, to reduce inflammation and swelling, particularly of the nasal passages, orally as a digestive aid, for osteoarthritis, and to reduce soreness in aching muscles. But the pills don’t taste like pineapple. Hrmm, how much pineapple would you need to eat to get the benefits of bromelain or would it be too much acid for your tooth enamel? If you feel like looking into that for me, tag the soc med with the answer.
The fruit most of us thought of as iconically Hawaiian as the ukulele originally comes from South America. The ukulele, incidentally, is Portugese. They first came to Europe courtesy of bad at math, good at pitch meetings, terrible at humanity, Christopher Columbus, who discovered pineapples in Guadeloupe in 1493 and brought them back to Spain. It is no exaggeration to say that Europeans went wild for this exotic delicacy, described by one British land-holder in Barbados as ‘far beyond the choicest fruits of Europe.’ From the moment these exotic edibles hit British shores, they were an immediate smash hit, followed by the equally immediate and incontrovertible conclusion that they could *not be cultivated in Ol’ Blighty. People still tried though, and tried, and tied. For nearly two hundred years, they kept at it, so desirable was the pineapple. Britain’s climate is such anathema to tropical plants that the modern chocolate trade, when shipping cocoa trees for transplant elsewhere, send them to the UK to quarantine, because none of the diseases and blights they carry can survive there.
European growers were finally able to succeed in the 18th century by dint of hot-houses. A hot house is different from a greenhouse in that greenhouses are warmed exclusively by the sun and hot houses have some artificial form of heat. If you happen to have a hot house, or you like in a fairly warm climate and think you might give growing them a go, I have good news and bad news. The good news is you can start a pineapple plant from the pineapple you got at the grocery store. Twist off the leafy crown and remove the lower inch or two of leaves. Let it dry for a day or so. Put it in a jar of warm water, making sure to only submerge the leaf-free area. Change the water every few days and when the crown has grown roots at least 3in long, you can plant crown. After that, you’re on your own. The bad news is, in addition to temperature and soil characteristics, altitude is a factor in pineapple success. In Hawai’i, the best pineapples in terms of sugar content and sugar-acid balance grow at an elevation of 1000ft/300m.
What had made European botanists, horticulturists, and agriculturists so damn determined to make these things grow in a place they simply weren’t meant to grow? It was the intersection of two characteristics — 1) pineapples didn’t survive the two months it took to get them from New World to Old. King Charles II was sent a shipment of pineapples, but only one arrived in still-edible condition. Hopefully the sailor on that ship ate the pineapples as they started to go off, because they have more vitamin C than oranges. A few ounces of pineapple a week could stave off scurvy, and I’m sure it would have been a welcome break from rotten beef and weevil-y bread. At least for the first few weeks. King Chaz was absolutely smitten with his first and only taste of pineapple. He had a portrait painted of his gardener handing him a pineapple, a cropped version of which was one of this week’s Mystery Monday, and called his favorite mistress his little pineapple. The monarchs so revered the multi-fruit that it was dubbed King Pine. And 2.) The European diet simply didn’t have many sweet things in it. Cane sugar was expensive, being imported from Asia, ripe fruit was only available in the moment, and honey was a treat for the rich or the most special occasions.
During the height of its popularity pineapples would sell for as much as $8000 in today’s money. If you couldn’t afford to buy one, you could always rent one. That’s right, you could rent a pineapple. Obviously, in that case, you can’t eat it, so what do you do with it? You look at it. You have friends round to look at it. You put it in the center of the table so everybody can see how fabulously wealthy and fashionable you must be to have gotten your hands on a pineapple. It wasn’t uncommon for the hoipolloi to carry the pineapple around with them like a designer handbag (and to me, they make about as much sense). Maybe you crash a party of a social rival by bringing your pineapple along with you, an even bigger douche move than that guy who always brings his guitar to parties and plays even though literally no one asked him to. Ever. Being such a valuable commodity, they had to be protected. Some nobles even had servants with the pineapple so it couldn’t be stolen. … Now I’m picturing an Ocean’s 11 style heist movie to steal a single pineapple from the center of a room of sleeping servants, a sort of grand theft bromeliad.
The close association with parties is how pineapples became iconographic of hospitality. and of generosity. They were incorporated into sculpture, civic architecture, design in private houses, courts and statues. You can see pineapples atop St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, but perhaps the most impressive is the giant stone behemoth that sits astride the archway of Dunmore House in Falkirk. Here you can actually stay in the pineapple shaped building. Pineapples even featured in much of contemporary literature including Charles Dickens’ novel ‘David Copperfield’ in which the protagonist himself was fascinated by the pineapples he saw in Covent Garden. It’s still a popular motif in home decor, though I swear I never saw it before I moved to the south.
So pineapples made the long trip from South America to Europe, but they had to find their way back to the New World, albeit on the far side of a different continent, to find the place they’re most closely associated with today. Most of the credit or blame for the false ubiquity falls on one man – James Dole. He was not the first in his family to settle in Hawaiʻi. His grandfather, Daniel, had arrived there in 1840 as a Christian missionary, with sights set on converting the Native Hawaiians. Missionaries had a significant impact on the Hawaiian governance, imposing western notions of property ownership, which culminated in a massive land grab where stolen land was sold to Anglo-American businessmen and investors. 50 years later, another Dole, sugar tycoon Sanford B. Dole, led the coup d‘état against Queen Lili‘uokalani in 1893 and was named president of the new provincial government. Inspired, young James purchased a 60-acre homestead on O‘ahu and experimented with a number of cash crops before settling on pineapple.
The tropical climate, advent of the industrial revolution, and one often-untold factor that I’ll circle back to momentarily all coalesced to see rows of spiky pineapple plants cropping up across the state. Dole eventually invested in a machine that could skin, core, and slice the fruit much faster than workers were by hand, a bit like the cotton gin in the mainland south, and many competing companies bought one too. Bob’s your uncle, the pineapple was now a commercial crop, putting Hawai‘i back on the map as an agricultural powerhouse. By the 1930s, Hawai‘i was home to the world’s largest canneries and had established itself as the global leader in pineapple production. Companies enticed laborers away from the sugarcane fields, promising higher wages and better working conditions. That may have been true, but it wasn’t by a lot and it wasn’t like the work was any easier, and this is the third point I alluded to, a socially- subjugated workforce will few options otherwise and no real power of their own. For long, sun-beated hours, workers planted pineapples by hand and harvested them into lug boxes, to load onto trucks. Pesticides and fertilizers were used extensively; personal protective equipment was not. In addition to risking the health of the plantation workers, it also contaminated the soil and ground water, that old chestnut.
James Dole believed that the success of the business and industry depended upon product visibility, and that marketing pineapple required the commodification of Hawaiian culture. Hawaiian Nationalist activists Mililani and Haunani-Kay Trask explain that this includes “marketing native values and practices on haole terms. These talents, in Hawaiian terms, are the hula, the aloha—generosity and love—of our people, the u’i or youthful beauty of our men and women, and the continuing allure of our lands and waters.” These very images feature prominently in Hawaiian Pineapple Company and Dole Company’s advertisements. By selling the pineapple as distinctly Hawaiian, “a label assumed by white usurpers of the kingdom for legitimacy,” says professor Gary Okihiro. While the native Hawaiians baked in the fields, ad men in cool offices pushed and shaped the Hawaiian pineapple’s image, making sure it was prominently featured on travel brochures and posters, adding to Hawaii’s tourist appeal and the rise of “tiki” aesthetic, which is tacky in the wrong way, when you think about it. Recipes created to entice housewives to buy more canned pineapple, such as the thoroughly dubious “candle salad.” [sfx slow-build pron music] On a bed of a few lettuce leaves, place a ring of pineapple and in that ring, stand a banana, straight up. Top it with half a maraschino cherry. Garnish with whipped cream. I’ll let you visualize how or where you might do that.
After WWII, the pineapple industry began to shift to places like the Philippines and Thailand, and Hawaiʻi lost its market superiority. The glory days faded further in the 1980s, when Dole Food Company and Del Monte closed up shop and moved overseas. The final nail in the coffin for the withering industry came in 2009, when Maui Land & Pineapple announced it would shut down its operations. The state currently produces only 10 percent of the world’s pineapple, and there are just a handful of small-scale pineapple operations left. Today, the bulk of pineapple production has slowly shifted to Asia and Central America, where the fruit is cheaper to produce. Most of the once-thriving fields now lie fallow. Canneries have been converted to museums and shopping malls. Why? Because tourists are more profitable than pineapples. Not that tourism is without its drawbacks. In addition to the environmental impact and tropical gentrification, At statehood, Hawaiians outnumbered tourists two to one; today, tourists outnumber Native Hawaiians thirty to one. All because of the pineapple. And maybe the Navy base at Pearl Harbor, a little.
And that’s… When Sam Panopoulus created the first “Hawaiian pizza,” regular pizza was so thin on the ground that Sam had to cut his own boxes from leftover cardboard, but the “tiki” craze of the 50’s meant his customers were well familiar with canned pineapple, and people were eager to at least try it. As pizza franchises sprung up throughout the latter half of the 20th century, so did Hawaiian pizza, installing itself as a second-string menu item for families to argue about. And for everyone out there hating on pineapple on pizza, be glad you’re not in Sweden, where they top theirs with curry powder and bananas.
One last thing. The long-held belief that drinking pineapple juice improved the flavor of amorous body fluids? Sorry, nope, but we appreciate the effort and at least you won’t get scurvy while you wait for date night.